Serial writers

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By With the number of television channels and soaps increasing, scriptwriting has become a challenging but rewarding choice for many, writes Shabina Akhtar
  • Published 23.09.10
A scene from Jhansi Ki Rani

Bandana Tewari knew how to wield the pen. After graduation, she enrolled for a masters in journalism and mass communication at Calcutta University. Little did she know that her canvas would suddenly change. And fame and fortune be her new calling.

Tewari was hunting for a job as a journalist when a team from Balaji Telefilms came to Calcutta scouting for young writers. That was in 2005. She took the test, by chance, and was selected for the interview.

She then managed to impress the judges with her ideas for twists to narratives that, they felt, would raise the Television Rating Points (TRPs) of their soaps.

Thus began her journey as a scriptwriter for Balaji Telefilms, with a monthly stipend of Rs. 15,000. Five years down the line, she commands Rs 1,00,000 a month as a story and screenplay writer for the same house.

Tewari is one of several unknown faces behind the camera, who churn out colossal characters like Tulsi Virani or Parvati, or weave tales that compel people to remain glued to their television sets. No wonder, scriptwriters are the most sought after people in the industry.

Television scriptwriting is a unique genre, governed by its own set of rules. “A film script is based on a story which is developed into a script of two odd hours, based on which a single film is made and viewed at one go. But in the case of a TV serial, you have to break up the story into episodes of 20 or 40 minutes, each in turn factoring in three commercial breaks. You have to keep the script flowing such that viewers are attracted to the show day after day, week after week, despite the several breaks, lest they stray to more engaging fare on another channel,” explains Anjum Rajabali, head of the department, screenwriting, Whistling Woods, a Mumbai-based film school.

Also, you need to be in constant touch with the channel heads and producers to know what they are seeking to pump up viewership and TRPs.

Even if that means extending the plot beyond the original lines, bumping off a character prematurely, or bringing him or her back.

The number of general entertainment channels (GECs) has shot up in the last few years, creating space and demand for a whole lot of professionals. Channels such as Colors, Star Plus, Zee TV, Sony Entertainment and Sahara One deal primarily with Hindi serials, and are always on the look out for writers with a command of Hindi, knowledge of local dialects and a knack for understanding audience tastes. These days, it’s common for production houses to get their soaps shaped by a rotating team of writers. “I had to attend meetings with my seniors and the boss, Ekta Kapoor, wherein the latter would discuss scripts and dialogues of various shows on air. As a newcomer, I had to transcribe her ideas on paper and add my own twists,” recounts Tewari.

Good scriptwriters are hard to come by. But getting a break is also not easy. "It isn’t possible for producers to read every script submitted,” admits Manish Goswami, chairman and managing director of Siddhant Cinevision Limited, which has produced serials like Daraar, Adhikar, Aashirwad, Kartavya and Milan. “Writers must give succinct synopses that capture the essence of their script, and which might interest the producer to read the entire text,” he adds.

One chance is all that a scriptwriter needs. But how do you get a producer to give it to you? One way is to exercise your creativity to conceive a unique character. After all, that’s what most serials seem to be doing today. Your ability to lend twists and turns to the tale also counts.

Consider the example of Ila Bedi Datta, scriptwriter of Zee TV’s Jhansi Ki Rani. Datta began her career with Aruna Irani’s Mehendi Tere Naam Ki. She says, “To come up with the right script, you need to make the lead character a part of your daily existence.” You can’t expect an easy way in. As a fresher, you should be ready to assist senior creative heads or scriptwriters. And if you are talented, you might bag a deal to script single handedly, she adds.

That’s exactly how young Saba Mumtaz began, when she was offered a chance to script for Sahara One’s Haqeeqat, a show based on real-life incidents. Having done that, she went on to write others such as Mohe Rang De and Mere Ghar Ayi Ek Nanhi Pari for Colors. Today Mumtaz has two mega shows — Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Chand Chupa Badal Mein on Star Plus — in her kitty.

Ask her if a degree in scripting is a must, and you might be surprised. “It’s a joke amongst my friends, that Saba who had flunked her scriptwriting test in the mass communication class at Jamia (Millia Islamia), is now a successful scriptwriter,” she laughs. All you need is a fertile mind to come up with real-life situations that are endearing enough to make viewers relive a part of their life, not fancy degrees, she says.

But just being blessed may not always work. The Indian television industry is quite disorganised, and having a degree or diploma will help if you do not have a mentor.

Most institutes that offer training in script writing or filmmaking offer some assistance in getting a break. “We have an integrated post graduation diploma course in filmmaking, and television scripting is one of the modules,” says Venkatesh Chakravarthy, dean, Ramanaidu Film School, Hyderabad. However, getting a break in television is as difficult as in the film industry, he warns.

Says Rajabali, “Formal training makes your learning more systematic and hence more efficient, time-wise. Plus, you get valuable inputs from experienced heads.” Another advantage of enrolling in an institute is the exposure — you get to know and interact with the whole community.

Unlike in many other fields, there is no growth pattern in this profession. According to producer-director Rajan Shahi — of Bidaai and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai — there is no hierarchy in the industry. “There are writers handling shows single handedly, while some prefer to have assistant writers. The latter get training under these professionals,” says Shahi.

Aspirants generally begin this way. They are given a structure to develop into a story for each episode. “I have an associate writer to whom I generally give a single line structure to develop on. When she is done, I work on it, and then send it to the producers or channel heads,” says Mumtaz.

Most scriptwriters are freelancers and work from home. “On an average, I spend two or three hours on a script and then mail it to the people concerned for feedback,” says Datta.

What kind of money can one expect? “It varies from one production house to another. It can be anything between Rs 5,000 per episode (story and screenplay included) to Rs 5,00,000 a month.”

So if you are industrious and want to give vent to your creative juices, the magic box is all you need to look at.

A day in the life of Bandana Tewari

My day begins with thoughts about some new episode or story. I generally sleep around 3 am and wake up around 10.30. Naturally, my meetings are slated after 12 noon. Once in the office, we discuss ideas, first in groups. Then I meet my seniors to discuss them further and develop them into episodes. At times I have to meet the channel heads who might want to know what is going on. The day ends after I’ve finished writing the episode and delivered it for the shoot.


Where you learn

► Whistling Woods, Mumbai

► Ramanaidu Film School, Hyderabad

► Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi

► Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Calcutta

► Film and Television Institute of India, Pune html

► Indian Film & Television Institute, Noida

► Digital Academy, Mumbai

► Rajashree’s Workshop, Mumbai shop